Of the Big Five slasher franchises (i.e Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc.), perhaps the greatest one I’ve left untouched is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Perhaps this is because, unlike other franchises that stay consistently good (Scream) or consistently bad (Friday the 13th), Texas Chainsaw started out as one of the smartest, most shocking horror films of all time, only to deliver eight truly rough sequels, ranging from “meh” to “nightmarishly bad.” But tis the season to reflect on the scary movies that made us, and so we’ll be spending today’s Listicle breaking down the Official Ranking of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Films.
The rules here are simple: I’m looking for the purest form of the Chainsaw franchise – that is to say, the best execution of the series’ themes. This is a story about primal evil, of a man abused by his family and turned into an animal that only knows how to carve meat – no matter the source. A great Texas Chainsaw film understands that Leatherface is dangerous, but tragic, and that it is his family – a representation of all that is wrong with the Deep South – that is the true terror. I also want something that is viscerally disturbing. Not necessarily gory, just traumatic on a deep, inhumane level. So, with those rules in place, let’s take a look at the franchise that birthed the slasher genre!
9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
Boy, this one was really no question for me. Forget the worst Texas Chainsaw movie, this is just an outright bad film, period. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, the prequel to Michael Bay’s reboot, is a vile, vile film. It revels in bloodshed just to be nasty – within the first thiry seconds, an obese woman has a violent, deadly childbirth that leaves viscera and dumpster babies in its wake. And it’s all downhill from there. Cows are exploded, heads are smashed in, women run around in just their underwear for…reasons. And oh yeah, we’re supposed to root for the Hewitt family through all this. Instead of a nasty family of cannibals turning to murder because of their career in the slaughterhouse, this family is doing the Lord’s work, killing hippies and beyond. Oh, and did I mention that Leatherface is barely in this, and when he is he’s little more than a bloodthirsty killer? This film does not get The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it does not get horror, and it doesn’t get film in general. It is the worst of the worst.
8. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)
The newest entry on the list, released in February of this year (after being sold to Netflix for pennies to save Lionsgate the embarrassment), Texas Chainsaw Massacre holds some promise in its opening moments. It tantalizes with ideas of gentrification and true crime as its premise – original voice-over artist John Larroquette appears here to narrate a “documentary” about the 1974 attacks. It’s a shame that the film immediately forgets this idea for a series of half-assed “satirical comments” on millennials. They whine about guns and air-polluting trucks, one girl deals with the trauma of a school shooting that she can only overcome by firing a shotgun, and in the most egregious moment, a group of teens try to Instagram Live Leatherface with the threat, “You’re about to be cancelled, bro.” Disgraceful. Oh, and did I mention that this Leatherface is afraid of nothing and loves chopping, while Sally Hardesty returns to the series as a knockoff Laurie Strode who spent her entire life training to kill Leatherface, only to die twelve seconds into her big face-off? A few well-shot scenes and a smart opening five minutes save this from being the worst of the series – but only just barely.
7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
It really shouldn’t be a surprise that two of the bottom three Chainsaw films would come from producer Michael Bay. Despite recent attempts to rebrand him as an auteur, his films rarely rise above exploitative and obnoxious. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, his 2003 remake of the original classic, is no exception. The film is all gore, sex, and nonsense – and sometimes all three, as is the case when a woman pulls a gun out of her crotch, shoots herself in the head, and the camera passes through the gaping wound. Yet this is hardly the worst part of the remake – the editing is sloppy, Jessica Biel overacts, the Leatherface mask is horrendous (not to mention he’s now treated as a Jason knockoff as opposed to a wounded animal), and R. Lee Ermey plays a racist, sexist cop. The only thing that saves the film is its new prologue, narrated again by John Larroquette, that treats the aftermath of the “massacre” as a CSI investigation that actually feels new and terrifying. Otherwise? This is one to just skip.
The 2017 film Leatherface is a fascinating failure, in that it shares a lot in common with this year’s Halloween Ends. There’s an interesting, if inarticulate, backstory at play here that is rather bold in its audacity. There’s a story about a corrupt system driving a boy from a broken home deep into insanity, reflecting the broken politics and society hidden away in the 1950s and early 60. It could be a great film…it’s just not a film about Leatherface. There is no clear path for the boy here (presented with a fakeout where the speechless lunkhead that obviously resembles the famous killer dies early and reveals the hot hunk to be the titular psycho) to become the cannibalistic face-wearing crossdresser. He demonstrates no clear signs of woundedness or submission, nor could he kill anyone with a sledgehammer, as we know he later does. It’s a fascinating tragedy that has nothing to do with the story’s soul.
5. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III
We’re starting to move into the “interesting” failures of the bunch, which means the quality begins to shift significantly. Note that I didn’t say “improve,” because many of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels possess a sense of terror mixed with humor that comes out the other side of “so bad it’s good.” Such is the case with Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, the third film in the original timeline. As a plot, Leatherface is pretty convoluted. The characters outside of Kate Hodge’s Michelle are completely obnoxious. And the film features the worst portrayal of Leatherface by far. But there’s enough good here to salvage the film’s reputation – mostly in terms of gorgeously shot visuals. Giant fields of dead bodies, a little Sawyer girl with a sharp-toothed doll sitting in a field of bones, and Viggo Mortensen going completely ham as the family’s new patriarch. It’s not perfect, and it’s the worst of the original four films, but I gotta admit: I was never bored with Texas Chainsaw III.
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2
Ooh, time to start getting into controversy. Many fans regard The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 as one of the series’ best – some even say it’s better than the original. I get the desire, considering how the film doubled down on the series’ underlying comedic roots and took a satirical look at the early 80s. It also gave the series such fan favorites as Dustin Hopper’s Texas Ranger Lefty, Caroline Williams’ Final Girl Stretch, and especially brain damaged Vietnam Vet Chop Top, played by the incomparable Bill Moseley. However, while the characters are entertaining enough, and the film does give us the beauty of Dennis Hopper battling Leatherface in a chainsaw duel, the rest of the film just doesn’t come all the way together. The humor doesn’t mesh with the horror, which doesn’t mesh with the weird romantic subplot where Stretch tries to seduce Leatherface to keep him from killing her. Hey, at least the film still understands Leatherface’s primally naïve nature. Not without its charms, Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 just lacks the juice to make the Top 3.
3. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation works for three essential reasons. The first is the presence of original writer Kim Henkel behind the scenes, keeping the series’ visceral roots surrounding groups of realistic teens (ok, somewhat realistic). Because of Henkel’s presence, the second reason is a fundamental understanding of Leatherface’s character. Despite the criticism of the character’s femininity here, he is correctly portrayed as a scared, bumbling, inbred monster just trying to survive. And the third is the use of great actors in smart roles, like Renée Zellweger’s Final Girl Jenny or Matthew McConaughey’s psycho redneck Vilmer. Now, Next Generation isn’t a perfect film. Character Barry is a terrific slasher character who stands out like a sore thumb in Texas, the dialogue is terrible (albeit self-referential), and there’s a random tit-flashing real estate agent who runs the Illuminati. Yet as silly as it all sounds, The Next Generation delivers on the thrills, the joy, and the Texas-ness of the series.
2. Texas Chainsaw 3D
Again, because I love controversy, let’s talk about why the campy 3D schlockfest Texas Chainsaw 3D is actually the best sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Now, it’s clear that the film thinks it’s higher-quality than it actually is, and certainly feels closer to a Friday the 13th film – at least cinematically. But it also feels like a Texas Chainsaw film in a way no other film has. It’s sincerely fun, capturing the horrific nature of the deep South in a way only the original had before while still reveling in the scares and screams. Furthermore, the film has the right balance of empathizing with Leatherface without condoning Leatherface. He’s a terror, yet ultimately a scared little boy who wants to protect his family. And few sequences in the series have been as frightening or as funny as when we watch, with Leatherface, as he cuts the wheel off an RV and watches as it crashes. Again, I feel weird putting a film that has Alexandra Daddario throw Leatherface his classic chainsaw and declare “Get ‘em, cuz!” as #2 on any list. But it’s the perfect blend of thrills, chills, and giggles, and that’s all one can want.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Once again, I have to wonder if these lists are worth it if the original is just going to top out at #1. But here, it’s just not even close. Sequels of camp and garbage and exploitation miss just what is so viscerally upsetting about Tobe Hooper’s original. It’s not that it’s bloody – there’s barely any gore. It’s not that it’s sexy – there’s no nudity. It’s not even that there’s a massacre – only a handful of characters die, and never all at once. It’s that Hooper’s film is just so deeply disturbing, on a gut level. It plays with ideas that humanity deeply fears, both on an acknowledgeable level – the house of desecrated corpses reflects on Ed Gein’s legacy – and a subconscious level that humans fear to admit – there are direct lines to humanity’s carnality in eating meat and the deep-seated racism of the South. And not to mention that Leatherface is so terrifying here because he’s the least hateable of his psychotic family – whereas they know what they’re doing, poor Leatherface is simply trying to survive, doing what his nature compels him towards. That’s why the final shot is so iconic – the complete overwhelming of emotions following the relief of escape, and the utter absence of humanity as Leatherface swings his chainsaw in the sunset. It is, in essence, perfection.
Well, that wraps this year’s Sacred Walloween! I hope you’ve enjoyed this year’s lists, and have had a proper spooky season. I’ll be back next week with more reviews and Oscar write-ups before we hit the holidays and the Best of 2022. Until then, feel free to comment below with your favorite Texas Chainsaw films, or what films on my list you think are over/underrated. See you all soon, and remember to stay spooky!